‘You Have to Live It’

Lent is the time to live the mystery of the Cross

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AckermanMarch holds a number of annual celebrations within it. There is, of course, St. Patrick’s Day, which is a wonderful time for corned beef and cabbage if you are sober enough to remember it. There is the start of the NCAA basketball tournament with my bracket usually busted after the first day.

However, it also is a time for spring break and for students to find some time away from the classroom. While many college students head to the beach, there has been a growing trend of colleges offering service trips and opportunities to make faith alive. In Pittsburgh, we hold a commissioning Mass at our cathedral prior to spring break to pray for those making service trips. The bishop usually presents each student with a cross, shakes their hand and then wishes them well.

At one particular commissioning Mass, a homeless woman wandered into the line of students waiting to receive their cross. When she reached the bishop, she looked him up and down in his vestment, miter and crozier, and then asked a truly poignant question: “Who in the hell are you?” she said to him. “Well, I’m the bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh,” he replied, and he handed her a cross. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” she retorted. “Live it!” the bishop answered. “You have to live it.”

Lent is always a time in which we try to live the mystery of the Cross as we journey with Our Lord deeply into his passion. You and I know suffering well, but perhaps we often reply like that homeless woman, “What the hell am I supposed to do with it?” It might be easy to skip over Lent and look to the joy of Easter, but Lent, too, is joyful, as we draw nearer to Christ and experience a renewed faith.

I remember visiting the parish school once to ask them about Lent. I asked the first grade, “Are you ready for Lent?”

“No,” several of them replied.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because Lent is a time when we have to eat smelly, gross fish,” one girl replied, “and be miserable because Jesus was miserable going to the cross.” Her reply was amusing, but it may not be that far from where many people are. Lent is not a time to give up chocolate and fast for the sake of looking better or of being miserable because we are sinners. Instead, it is an opportunity to unite our suffering to that of Christ’s and be healed.

One of the great ways that parishes make this happen is through penance services, which can get especially busy as Eastertime approaches. Once, when I was helping at a neighboring parish prior to Holy Week, an elderly usher approached me with great consternation. “Holy smokes, Father!” he said, “This is like the DMV in here; the parking lot is a mess, and this is going to take forever; it’s awful!”

“It’s nice to see, though, that people want confession,” I answered, “Maybe Lent is affecting them.”

“Yeah,” he replied. “It will affect you, too. You better hope that you have an IV and a catheter in that box; because you are going to be there for a long time!”

While it was a long time in that confessional, and while my backside did suffer, it was also rewarding to see so many people coming to the Lord to be renewed and offered hope through the power of the Cross.

March is truly a time of waiting on the Lord, and of “carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus” (2 Cor 4:10) so that we can know his life. There is no one particular way to commemorate Lent, but it is certainly a time to allow our daily struggles to meet the Lord. We may not know what we are supposed to do, but all we can do is live it, whether we find ourselves at the Stations of the Cross, a fish fry, in the confessional, or meeting a stranger and offering them the mystery of salvation, even when their response is one of abject bewilderment. 

FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the director of vocations for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and chaplain of Central Catholic High School.

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